Naming Tokyo part II
13 Nov – 20 Dec 2003
Swiss Institute—Contemporary Art, 495 Broadway 3rd floor, New York, NY - USA
Works in a conceptual vein by Jonathan Monk and Aleksandra Mir comfortably shared the main gallery at the Swiss Institute (November 13-December 20, 2003). Both artists honor the anti-commercial spirit that helped define conceptual art at its origins; and both artists create works with no clear moment of completion, focusing instead on the artistic process at its most cerebral and theoretical. Both artists have succeeded here in creating works that engage and challenge, and both artists bring to their work the optimistic brand of globalism and inclusiveness that characterizes The Swiss Institute's thoughtfully curated exhibitions.
Always an eclectic appropriator of various Modernist practices, Monk works here in what at first seems to be a classical, orthodox mode of conceptual art is the subject matter as well as the method, and homages to the greats of conceptual art abound. Sol LeWitt, 'A Cube' (2001), the first work that claims the viewer's attention (partly due to the noisy projector on which it runs), is a 16mm film loop that projects an image of a cube-a trademark of this grandfather of conceptual art. Robert Barry also receives a respectful nod; the text of his Telepathic Piece from 1969 is reproduced on the letterhead of various professional translation firms. On a series of seven pages, the text journeys through multiple languages—from English to French on the first page; from French to Dutch on the second page; and so on through Polish, Czech, Chinese and other tongues, finally returning to English.
The mining of art's past is Monk's stock in trade, and he does this mining well, although one sometimes senses the earnestness of a very bright graduate student where the authority of an artist and creator would serve him better. But Monk cannot be accused of simple appropriation—partly because he mines such rich material; who hasn't wondered if anyone received Barry's "telepathically communicated" work of art? If not, it is still floating out there, like the transmissions sent into space seeking alien intelligence?
Interspersed with these works are Monk's numbered "meeting pieces," which consist of vinyl lettering in a sans-serif font. Each work describes an exact place and time in the future—'The Lion Enclosure London Zoo Regents Park London 12th May 2014 Lunchtime,' runs the text of 'Meeting Piece #63' (2003). Each piece seems to be in the language of the appropriate destination it designates—#63 describes a location in England, so the language is English; #19 describes a Mexican destination, so the language is Spanish, and so on.
These global locations lend Monk's art an inclusiveness that makes it a good match for Mir's work. The irresistible cheerfulness—and cheekiness of Mir's projects recall the humorous conceptualism practiced by the Russian-born team Komar and Melamid, whose light touch in projects like the 'Most Wanted Paintings' and 'Elephant Art' relieve conceptual art of the burden of its difficult, serious roots-in the process, unfortunately rendering it so accessible as to be almost self-explanatory. Mir's work, however, manages to achieve a similar tone of friendliness while retaining the complexity and ambition that make conceptual art such a rich, flexible and useful movement.
Naming Tokyo Part II is the second phase of her ongoing project to grant Western names to Tokyo streets. Beginning earlier in 2003 in an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Mir invited artists, poets, curators and various others to suggest names for sections of Tokyo that lack street names, making them difficult for Westerners to navigate. 'Part II' consists of a map of Tokyo with the new street names assigned (available online, or in a lovely printed version distributed free to gallery visitors). The future of Mir's project lies in the continued dissemination of the naming system through maps and guide books, creating collective knowledge to guide Tokyo's visitors from around the world. New York-style street signs in the gallery illustrate selected names.
Issues of colonization or imperialism go cheerfully unexplored-except for a somewhat blithe assertion, in a statement by the artist, that she knows Westerners will find the map useful, and she is sure Tokyo residents will love it too! But this chirpy assertiveness is a refreshing contrast to the politically correct multiculturalists who ask artists (and viewers) to deny their cultural perspectives, and Mir's candor carries a genuine undercurrent of cultural inclusiveness.
This successful shows prompts a pleasant curiosity about the futures of the work shown—and an optimism about the value and richness of art under the influence of cultural crosscurrents worldwide.